British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama have announced that the two countries will stage a series of cyber attack war games, in a new move to prepare for a possible attack.
The first exercise will take place later this year, and will involve a mock attack on the financial sector, the British government said — specifically testing the security of several banks in the City of London and Wall Street. Both Britain's GCHQ surveillance agency and the US National Security Agency will participate. The increased cooperation between the countries was confirmed in a press conference given by the two leaders on Friday, where Cameron said the main challenges that both the UK and the US are currently facing "boiled down to one word: security."
In an interview with the BBC, Cameron said: "Cybersecurity and cyber attacks are one of the biggest modern threats that we face. Eight out of 10 large companies in Britain have had some sort of cyber attack against them."
He went on to say that "cyber cells" would be set up on both sides of the Atlantic, and used to share information and work out how to best provide protection.
"Now Britain and America are working together, we've got hugely capable cyber defences, we've got the expertise," Cameron said. He added that they were hoping to create a system strong enough that "hostile states and hostile organizations know that they shouldn't attack us."
"(Action) is happening already," Cameron said, "but it needs to be stepped up."
The prime minister also said that in extreme situations, the leaders wanted to be able to "interrupt the contact between terrorists," something that would require the cooperation of large companies such as Facebook and Google, and might raise concerns about privacy.
James Arbuthnot, a British parliamentarian and former chairman of the Defense Select Committee, told VICE News that he welcomed the announcement that the two countries were working together. "(They) will be able to learn from each other and practice with each other so that we have different but helpful ways of coping what is becoming one of the world's major threats."
He also said that he didn't know what form these "games" would take. "No I don't (know) and I think I shouldn't, because the more people are told about this the less helpful to security, from both countries' point of view, it will be."
In his opinion, Arbuthnot said the UK's National Grid electricity system would be the most likely target. It was already under constant attack, he continued, adding that a successful assault would cause "unimaginable" and "devastating" difficulties.
The committee has previously criticized the UK government for being "complacent" about this area.
Arbuthnot said the consequences of a major attack on the electricity network would be catastrophic. "If the National Grid went down we would have no money, because all our finances rest on things like hole-in-the-wall bank machines and computer records. If there is no money then the social order breaks down within a matter of hours. We'd have no water, because water is pumped around by electronic relays. Those electronic relays also take the sewage away from houses so sewage would begin to build up and disease would begin to break out.
"We'd have no petrol because you stop your car at a petrol station and you fill up from a pump which is powered by electricity. We'd have no communications so nobody would be able to be told what was going on. We'd have no transport. The nuclear reactors would need to continue to be cooled — they are at the moment cooled by electricity so the backup systems would be heavily tested. It would be unimaginably catastrophic, and one bad thing would build on another and there would be a cascade of really bad things which would make the other bad things impossible to deal with."
Arbuthnot said that the source of the threat is not the most important aspect, because no matter where it originates, it could still be potentially completely destabilizing. "The threats can come from anywhere: states, terrorist organizations, criminal organizations, a vicious teenager in his bedroom."
Cameron and Obama have been holding meetings in Washington, where on Thursday the two politicians released a co-authored article highlighting the' "special relationship" between the US and UK. "Together we defeated the Nazis and hunted down the core al Qaeda leadership," the text read.
I'll be at the White House shortly for discussions with President Obama on keeping people safe from security threats around the world.
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron)January 16, 2015
It added: "Security and prosperity go hand in hand. By confronting the terrorists who threaten us, standing together against Russia's aggressive acts and continuing our efforts to advance our economic growth, we will continue to advance the security and prosperity that our people deserve."
The increased attention on cybersecurity comes after the US Central Command (Centcom) Twitter and YouTube accounts were hacked earlier this week. The hackers replaced the US agency's profile picture with a visual of a masked figure beside the statement: "I love you ISIS," and posted diagrams labeled as "tactical operations scenarios" that focused on China and North Korea.
The purported home and email addresses and of dozens of retired officers were also posted, with the text: "American soldiers, we are coming, watch your back!" while another said: "We won't stop! We know everything about you, your wives and children."
Another tweet, which showed a photo of what appears to be an office with women in military gear inside, read: "ISIS is already here, we are in your PCs, in each military base."
Centcom said they were viewing this "purely as a case of cybervandalism," and maintained that no classified information was posted.
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd